INTERVIEW WITH NICANOR GONZALEZ: We Are Not Conservationists; Indigenous organizations are working at every level - local, natio

INTERVIEW WITH NICANOR GONZALEZ: We Are Not Conservationists; Indigenous. organizations are working at every level-local, national, and international.

Nicanor Gonz lez, a Kuna Indian from Panama, was a founding technician of Project PEMASKEY, which has managed a forestry park in the Kuna homeland since 1983. He was international coordinator for the Second Interamerican Indian Congress on Natural Resources and the Environment. At the congress, held in December 1991 in San Ignacio de Moxos, Bolivia, representatives of 17 Latin American countries met to discuss land rights and indigenous participation in political decisions. Gonz lez is also a regional coordinator for Cultural Survival's South America Natural Resource Management Program. Celina Chelala, projects assistant in the program, interviewed Gonz lez.

Indigenous communities or organizations have been invited to attend many meetings, workshops, and seminara as guests, but often indigenous people don't feel that these events are their own. This is why the Second Inter-american Indian Congress on National Resources and the Environment came about last year. The congress - the first was in Panama, and the next is to be in Canada - assumed that indigenous groups can create their own themes, organizing the politics, strategies, and methodology of how the conference will be run and who will be invited.

This issue arose in connection with the UNCED (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) conference in Rio de Janeiro last June. Governments made the decisions, and neither indigenous people nor non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were directly involved. The four preparatory meetings did provide an opportunity to present our point of view, but we were aware that many documents presented by the Indians were not going to be used by the governments: they would be thrown out or filed away. We saw the Earth Summit, as it was called, only as an opportunity to show our presence and give our point of view.

The process of negotiating directly with governments utilized at the final UNCED preparatory meeting in New York was interesting. The indigenous organizations present in New York drew up a document, and then they worked on committing governments to it. In the case of Panama, the PEMASKY project had to negotiate with the representatives to UNCED of Panama, just as CIDOB, the Indigenous Confederation of Eastern Bolivia, negotiated with the representatives of Bolivia. We say PEMASKY had to negotiate with the government of Panama. Indigenous organizations of Ecador also had to negotiate with their government, and the same for Brazil.

We saw that negotiating through organizations helped insure that the documents remained active. Indigenous organizations have realized how much they depend on each other's capacity to negotiate with the governments of each country. The point at UNCED was to negotiate, talk, learn, and establish initial contacts.


In this sense, indigenous organizations have matured quite a bit. For example, they know very well that if they are only involved at the technical level, they will become distanced from politics at the community level. And work done in the field isn't useful for indigenous people if it is separate from the political work.

Take the case of the Kuna in Panama. From 1945 until 1948, and then after 1983, the Kuna had autonomy in their comarca (territory). We won that with a political fight against the government. But we realize now that it was a mistake for the Kuna of Panama to have fought only for ourselves. We left behind other indigenous groups: the Guaymis, the Embera, and so on. We didn't think about how it would affect them when we were fighting. We only considered the autonomy of our territory and our own political and economic participation of the national level.

Now we realize that we marginalized other indigenous groups who could be our own brothers and sisters. Therefore, there is going to be another struggle to include all indigenous communities. Moreover, instead of speaking of Panama, we will speak of Central America and South America. We need to be involved with all indigenous organizations, and not just those of Panama but throughout Latin America. In other words, coordination is needed. We can't isolate ourselves from the work of other indigenous groups, the Quichua on one side, the Shuar on another, the Kunas here and the Mapuche there. The main objective of the Second Congress was to share experiences and information.

I think the recent experience of Colombia is another example of maturity at the political level. Other Indian organizations are becoming much more like ONIC (the Colombian National Indigenous Organization). CONAIE (the National Ecuadorian Indigenous Agricultural Council) is another example. Very few countries have these national indigenous organizations, organizations that are committed to pressuring their governments.

Other regional and local groups support these national organizations but are more dedicated to community or development projects. Community work involves a different relationship with governments, as well as another form of negotiating with NGOs. In this, there are many types of experiences, including very innovative ones within indigenous organizations. In the case of the Kuna's PEMASKY project in Panama, or of PUMAREN in Ecuador, or CIBOL within the regional organization in Bolivia - specific programs have been established: projects to manage natural resources, agriculture projects, projects involving cattle owners.

The idea in all of these projects is to form technical work teams. The PEMASKY project is well known on an international level for interdisciplinary work - it has architects, topographers, agronomists, forestry biologists. The members of this team work in communities on social and economic development projects but always independently of politics. Therefore, in talking about the Kuna, those on projects such as PEMASKY deal with technical issues, while others who work at the political level make decisions about how the Kuna should participate in and negotiate with governments.

In other countries, too, these two objectives - local and national - are different. In Colombia, ONIC began a national organization and now has three representatives in the national Senate. But CRIC (the Regional Indian Council of Cauca) and other affiliated organizations are dedicated to community and development projects in rural areas.

We have also found that it is important to differentiate among NGOs. In the 1960s, outside organizations wanted to develop the programs or make donations to communities. Later in the '60s and '70s until now, they spoke more of working with indigenous organizations and working with and for communities. They would obtain funds and bring them to communities.

Now we want to change this system. Groups that want to work for our communities, or that want to become involved in community work, should have direct experience with those communities. They must have direct contact with the communities, be they national or international NGOs or any other type of organization. And international organizations need to have a representative of that community within their organization.

I believe this is very important, and it is innovative. However, it isn't easy to work on these things. For us - for indigenous people - it is a learning process. But the NGOs are paying attention, and they are taking suggestions from the observations of indigenous organizations. This is very valuable to us and all of the organizations.

This is a new experience for us. Before, "promoters," as they are called, worked more for welfare. As their name indicates, promoters are dedicated to promoting activities of the sponsoring institution or the organization, instead of working solely in the communities. I have no knowledge of any health, education, or agriculture promoters who have produced concrete progress in a community. When the promoters leave the community, they end their project. This doesn't happen in indigenous organizations; only the international organizations have had this experience.

In my own work, I try to break some of the traditional schemes. For example, I don't give lectures and classes in a room, because communities don't live on talks. They live through concrete things, such as those things that will produce something to eat. It is not valuable for us if someone spends five or six years with indigenous communities and doesn't produce anything for us. We can't waste time.

Of course, I respect Western ideas. For example, one has to prepare an operational plan. But if we spend two or three months in offices with the directors, indigenous families are waiting in their houses for food for those two or three months. Social concerns need to be addressed, not just academic issues and planning, politics, or economics.


The time has come for us to change the way we see the world in terms of the environment and culture. We are thinking of the future, to the year 2000, to a time when not only environmental problems are considered, but ecological, social, and political problems as well.

There has been much talk about indigenous people and natural resources and the environment. And positive steps have resulted from this interest. Before, we didn't have information about the environment being destroyed. When this flow of information came from various national or international organizations, we began to educate ourselves about what was happening around us. We began to see that the question of the environment is not only a question involving indigenous territories, but it goes beyond us.

Many say that indigenous groups are conservationists by nature. Especially about five or ten years ago, people would say that we are conservationists and the best lovers of nature. And in some ways, it is true that indigenous communities are conservationists by nature. For thousands and thousands of years, we have managed our resources without destroying anything.

On the other hand, who is the conservation for? For other people? No. In fact, we see a danger that indigenous communities might begin to abuse their resources, and no one doubts some groups actually destroy some of their resources. What we have to focus on is looking for alternatives - finding a solution to economic issues without destroying natural resources.

What I have understood in talking with the indigenous authorities, indigenous groups, and individuals is that they are familiar with the laws of nature. They aren't conservationists; rather, they know how to interrelate humans and nature. This is the basic principle of indigenous people: interrelating the exchange and communication between Mother Earth and indigenous communities. Therefore, when indigenous people kill or hunt animals, or extract a medicinal plant, it is sacred. It is as if they are asking permission from the earth, from Mother Nature. This is not conservation - it is a contact with nature, communication with nature, communication between nature and person.

In this sense, then, I don't believe that you can say that indigenous peoples are conservationists as defined by ecologists. We aren't nature lovers. At no time have indigenous groups included the concepts of conservation and ecology in their traditional vocabulary. We speak, rather, of Mother Nature. Other organizations need to be clear about this before jumping in to solve some problem with the indigenous populations.

A related problem coming up now is the creation of protected areas and national parks. These concepts have never existed among indigenous people. With protected areas or national parks, there are restrictions that go against some of the principles of indigenous communities. You can't restrict the activities of indigenous communities, who have managed the land for thousands of years. You can't say to indigenous peoples: "Don't fish in this area, or hunt this animal, or go to what they call national parks or protected areas, or take out even one product." These activities are part of our culture - it is better to let indigenous people define which areas they believe should or should not be protected.

During the Second Congress, we held workshops around this point, and in the coming months we are going to discuss the issue of indigenous territories. At what point does one have to use protected areas and national parks? It is time to discuss this issue with the international organizations. For me the problem is finding alternative strategies for managing natural resources. This is what we are working on now with technical groups in different countries.

Projects for the Future

Country: Nicaragua

Organization: MIKUPIA - Heart of the Miskito

MIKUPIA was founded in 1991 to manage the proposed Miskito Coast Protected Area, a 5,000-square-mile stretch of lagoons and mangroves covering a large expanse of offshore coral reefs and seagrass pastures. it contain manatees, many resident and migratory waterfowl, the largest remaining population of hawksbill and green turtles in the Americas, and the Caribbean's most economically important lobster and shrimp grounds.

During Nicaragua's civil war, the exploitation of natural resources declined and wildlife flourished. Recently, however, military surveillance along the coast has increased, as has the presence of illegal foreign fishing and drug boats from 12 countries. The region is also a transshipping point for cocaine traffickers.

MIKUPIA hopes to organize Miskito coastal communities for protecting and conserving the environment. It plans to train Miskito resource specialists and resource guards and aims to demarcate the rich wild-life area in which Miskito live. MIKUPIA's eight staff members, working out of an office in Puerto Cabezas, coordinate with 90 "community promoters" to raise consciousness and discuss program objectives with 15,000 Miskito spread among 23 villages.

The World Wildlife Fund, the Indian Law Resource Center, the Caribbean Conservation Corp., Nicaragua's Ministry of Natural Resources, Cultural Survival, and MIKUPIA are working jointly to map out a comprehensive program for the next three years.

Mailing address: c/o IRENA, Apartado 5123, Managua, Nicaragua; street address: MIKUPIA, Puerto Cabezas, Nigaragua

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